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BPS memo called for ‘right-sizing’ Boston’s schools

Trea Lavery
BPS memo called for ‘right-sizing’ Boston’s schools
The West Roxbury Education Complex will close at the end of this school year. BANNER FILE PHOTO

When Boston Public Schools moved to close the West Roxbury Education Complex last year, students and teachers from the Urban Science Academy and West Roxbury Academy, the two schools making up the WREC, blasted department officials for not finding a way to keep the two high schools’ students together. School officials said they exhausted every option, yet documents from the decision-making process suggest that the district may have closed the school regardless of whether a solution had been found.

According to a report by Academic Superintendent Joel Boyd and Assistant Superintendent Ligia Noriega-Murphy from Nov. 16, 2018, acquired through a Freedom of Information Act Request by Boston Parents Schoolyard News, the search for a new facility yielded several space options for the displaced WREC students but none that would keep them all together, although it was limited to BPS buildings.

“It is possible that spaces external to BPS, which were not considered within this analysis, could be available and leased by the district as swing space for one or both schools,” the report stated, “but there remains an overarching need for BPS — perhaps even beyond this decision point — to right-size its high schools.”

Trend of school closings

Mayor Martin Walsh and BPS officials courted controversy in recent years with calls for the district to close schools. In a September 2015 meeting with the parent group Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST), Walsh reportedly told a roomful of parent activists he thought the district should operate just 90 schools. Walsh has denied making the comment, although parents present at the meeting insist that he did.

In 2014, the Walsh administration contracted with the consulting group McKinsey & Company for a $660,000 audit of the school system. Released in December 2015, the audit suggested closing or consolidating 30 to 50 of the district’s 125 schools. Parent activists blasted the report, which counted square footage that included cafeterias and gymnasiums and disregarded BPS student-to-teacher ratios to conclude that district school buildings have a capacity of 93,000 students, although the district then enrolled 56,000 students.

Parent activists pushed back, arguing that the district should shelve any plans for consolidation or “right-sizing” the district until it has reliable data on available classroom space. QUEST called for BPS officials to commit to “a planning process for the future of Boston Public Schools that is fully transparent and fully vetted by the public.” Such a process has not happened in the three years since then.

QUEST member Mary Battenfeld noted that the district is currently formulating plans to close and merge middle schools with no public input.

“We don’t know who’s making the decisions or how these decisions are being made,” she said. “There’s no public conversation.”

The Walsh administration in 2017 announced BuildBPS, a $10-year, $1 billion process to renovate existing school buildings and construct new ones. That plan calls for the construction of new school buildings in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, although it remains unclear how many new buildings the district can build with the funding so far allocated.

When BPS officials announced the impending closure of WREC last year, they cited deteriorating conditions in the school building which they said made it unsafe. At the same time, BPS officials also announced the closure of the McCormack Middle School in Dorchester. After students, teachers and parent activists protested, BPS officials agreed to allow the McCormack to merge with Boston Community Leadership Academy, a high school currently housed in Hyde Park.

Space for WREC students

Although WREC students and teachers asked that they be allowed to share space with another school, BPS officials said there are none in the system with adequate space. Boyd and Noriega-Murphy’s 2018 report listed options including schools around the district that had extra but limited classroom capacity; modular or portable classrooms, which were deemed impractical due to security challenges and needing a significant number of them for the two schools; and other locations, including St. Angela’s and St. Gregory’s Parishes, Neighborhood House Charter School and UMass, which were all pending analysis at the time of the report.

Students at the WREC schools, which will close at the end of this school year, were mostly forced to transfer individually to other high schools in the district. Next year’s seniors will transfer as a group to the Irving Middle School building, and 82 students in special education programs were also transferred as groups.

Both West Roxbury Academy and Urban Science Academy have faced declining enrollment in recent years, and WRA has received low test scores. These problems, in addition to lack of space and poor condition of the buildings, led to the closure.

BPS spokesman Dan O’Brien said that the district did everything it could to keep the students together, and that non-BPS facilities were considered outside of the specific analysis in the Nov. 16 report.

“Boston Public Schools actively searched for facility spaces both within and outside of the district to accommodate students from the West Roxbury Education Complex, with a focus on rising seniors who the district prioritized to keep together for their final year of school,” O’Brien said. “This search included inquiries to several local colleges and universities, along with the Archdiocese of Boston … While the rapid deterioration of the West Roxbury Education Complex drove the timing of the closure of West Roxbury Academy and Urban Science Academy, other factors that were considered were the overall enrollment declines and uneven academic performance at the two schools.”

Ruby Reyes, executive director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, said in an interview with the Banner that the decision was hurting not just the students and teachers at the school, but the district as a whole.

“If they pass school reconfiguration, and they’re actively closing schools, that will cause declining enrollment,” Reyes said. “They’re actively creating the problems that they’re trying to fix.”

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